LESSER DEMONS: CHAPTER 17

Posting for feedback. Thanks for reading!


CHAPTER 17

When Eilian hears that I spent the afternoon with Gwilim, she gets this look on her face like she’s just short of furious.

“What is going on with him? He’s purposefully avoiding the rest of us, but then he goes off to lunch with you? I don’t understand him at all.”

I’m perched on the armrest of one of the big wingback chairs in the den and Eilian’s sprawled on her stomach on the floor in front of me. When I first came in the room, both she and Dylan had their tablets expanded and were absorbed in their own things, wrapped up in blankets and sipping at cups of hot tea. There was something cozy about them like that, but there’s nothing cozy to the mood now.

In the chair across from me Dylan’s studying my face, kind of pensive and perplexed.

“I wonder what Gwilim’s interest is in you?”

“Oh come on, Dylan. That’s obvious.”

Eilian gestures at me all pointed, in a way that I find kind of embarrassing.

“Actually,” I say, studying the cuticles on my fingernails. “I don’t think he’s too interested in me at all. I mean, he barely talked the whole time we were together.”

Eilian’s not really listening. She’s collapsing her tablet back into her ring and getting to her feet. She stands there for a second and stares all unfocused and stormy at the floor. Then suddenly she thrusts her leg out and kicks the foot of the chair closest to her.

“Why doesn’t he just come home?” she says in this little wail, and goes stomping out of the room.

Dylan’s eyes meet mine and he gives me half a smile. Even though he hides it a whole lot better than Eilian, I’d be willing to bet he’s as bothered by Gwilim’s behavior as she is.

“She’s not upset with you,” he says.

“Oh, I know. She’s mad at Gwilim, and with what I’ve seen of him so far, I’d be surprised if anyone in Daxa wasn’t.”

***********************************************************************

At training that night Dylan teaches me how to make things bigger and smaller. How to look at an object’s particle pattern and duplicate it or subtract from it evenly and in the proper directions. Mostly, we use the clay practice ball, but he also has me try it out on the sphere of light matter that can project out of my phone, and then on an apple and a little kiwi that he swiped from Uncle Wyn’s stash in the kitchen earlier.

Seeing these things expand and shrink right there on the table in front of me—and to be making it happen just with the force of my own mind—I get kind of giddy about it. And when Dylan says I’m doing real well, I can feel the pride spread all conspicuous across my face. He ruins it, though, by adding that my technique, while functional, is lacking in finesse.

My reaction to that must be pretty priceless because he actually laughs out loud, and he says, “You just need more practice. You’re still learning faster than any average Painter would do.”

He picks up the clay ball and tosses it to me.

“Take the practice ball to your room and you can work on it when you have free time. Just don’t do it where anyone can see you.”

“Isn’t this something the other kids at school already know?”

“Probably. But it’ll likely be only a another day before you’re much better at it than they are. Actually,” he stands up, stretching his arms above his head for a second and then walking around the table toward me. “We can probably start on transforming material states tomorrow. Which means you need to focus on learning more particle patterns.”

He slides down onto the arm of my chair and reaches for the handyphone ring on my finger. Every time he does this—getting all into my space so sudden—it gives me a weird sense of panic. I need pretty much all my will power not to react too strong when he takes my hand in his and does that thing where he expands my phone for me.

“I’m downloading an index of particle patterns. You’ll want to look over them, memorize them.”

I’m real aware of his body so close to mine. Of that scent of his that makes my breath come faster. He hands my phone back to me, pointing at the index that’s now showing on the screen.

“It has light matter diagrams for each pattern so you can explore it from any angle.”

I stare at my phone, at the top of the screen where it says that the index has over a million entries. Over a million different particle patterns that Dylan expects me to memorize.

“You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Dylan just laughs.

“The more you know about what you’re seeing, the more powerful your painting will be. And the more finesse you’ll have,” he adds with a little smile. “A good Painter can tell when someone else’s painting isn’t up to scratch. I’m assuming you do want to be a good painter.”

“When you put it that way,” I make a face at him and he smiles again. “But still, you want me to memorize all of these?”

I flick my finger over the screen a couple times, scrolling down the seemingly unending list. I can’t help kind of groaning.

“Well, not all at once, of course. It’s easier than you think, though. Especially with your mind. And it really is necessary. Here, let me show you.”

He turns toward me a little more, which means we’re so close that we might as well be hugging. He wraps his fingers around my hand that’s holding the clay practice ball and this time I have to actually bite my lip when his skin touches mine.

“You know the pattern for an apple now,” he says, as calm as if being this near to me has no effect on him at all. “So to change this ball into an apple, all you have to do is look at its particles and determine what the difference is between the two and what needs to happen for the clay pattern to look like the apple pattern. Then, with your mind, you will that change to happen.”

With my particle sight I see the shift as the pattern changes, as the clay ball turns all subtle into this shining, red little apple in my hand. I obviously know it’s not magic, but it still feels magical, and in a sort of laughing surprise I look straight up into Dylan’s face. Which, it turns out, is kind of a mistake.

The way he’s smiling back down at me—like maybe he finds me a little magical—makes my heart beat as hard as a big bass drum. Sends shivers in a rush all over my body, and for just that one little second while we’re looking at each other like that, I think maybe he’s reacting to me the same way too.

Then his handyphone—on his hand that’s still wrapped around my fingers—vibrates to tell him someone’s calling, and whatever sort of moment we were having is immediately over. He lets go of me real quick, standing up and pressing the button to answer the call.

“Hi Teresa,” he says, with his back toward me now, and as fast as my excitement had rushed in, it rushes right back out again. Replaced with this achey sort of melancholy that I’m kind of surprised comes on so strong. As if hearing him say Teresa’s name like that actually hurts somehow.

Dylan turns back to me. “Sorry,” he mouths, pointing at his handyphone ring, and I know that my training is done.

Standing up, I give him an awkward little wave. Then I book it out of his room so I don’t have to hear him sounding so happy to be on the phone with her. By the time I make it back to my own room, it’s pretty obvious the melancholy’s here to stay.

My plan was to practice a little more this evening—I’ve still got that stupid apple in my hand—but I’m definitely not in the mood for painting. I set the thing on my desk and go into the bathroom to get ready for bed because I can’t see that there’s much use in my staying awake any longer.

When I’m climbing under the covers nearly half an hour later, I’m still feeling pretty sorry for myself. Sorry and lonely and homesick. And pretending real hard that I’m only sad because I miss my friends back in Flemingsburg, and not at all because I’m jealous of the way Dylan feels about Teresa.

The blanket’s already pulled way up to my chin when I remember my parents’ locket, which I stashed in the back of one of the dresser drawers my first night here. Before Dylan melted all my other belongings. I slide back out of the bed and shuffle through the dark over to the dresser, fumbling blind around in all the folded clothes in the drawer until my hand slides over the metal of the necklace’s chain.

The locket itself is still all beat and broken, and the feel of it in my hand brings up the image of Mom standing in our kitchen, passing me that picture of my dad. I see his curly hair and his playful smile, and my heart feels somehow full and empty at the same time.

Taking the locket over to the bed I climb back in again, slipping down under the covers and pressing the necklace one-handed, real tight against my chest. I didn’t realize how much of an emotional response I was going to have to the thing, but suddenly I feel on the verge of crying.

I think about what Dylan told me a long time ago, about a person’s essence moving over to another dimension when they die. It means my dad might still exist somewhere, and as I start to drift off into sleep I wonder if he ever thinks about me.

When something tickles at the back of my consciousness—something deep inside the locket—it’s more on instinct that I reach my mind out to examine it. The sighting it unleashes brings me real shocking and sudden out of sleep, although the state I’m in is not exactly what I would call waking.

There’s a hand around my throat. Crushing me down onto a hard, cold surface as if it’s going to press the air right out of me. I’m struggling against the grip of it, flailing around in a frenzy and trying to make contact with whoever it is who’s got hold of me. I can’t see anything. It’s just pitch blackness all around, but somewhere near I can hear the sounds of someone else in pain. Wheezing breaths that remind me of the death of that taker girl in the forest.

Suddenly, there’s a voice hissing right into my face, his breath full of a weird scent like chemical grass and cucumber.

“Did you really think you were so special?” the hiss is saying, and it feels like a knife thrust straight into my lungs. “Whatever gifts the universe may have supplied to you, it is still your witless brain directing them. Can you hear how your friend suffers for your foolhardiness? You should suffer too, for what you’ve done to him. The universe made a mistake with you, but it’s brought you to me now so that I can fix it, and you’ll never be so foolish again.”

He grips the top of my head with his free hand, his fingers driving hard down into my scalp, pushing my head backward.

“Don’t worry. Though this will hurt quite a lot, you won’t remember any of the pain afterward.”

There’s some thing in my mind now. Something foreign, as if my attacker’s reaching his energy inside me. Pushing his own darkness right into my brain matter.

I’m petrified, trying to pull myself from his grasp but barely able to breathe. And that horrible gasping from the other person—someone dying beside me. A friend, apparently. Their breath is scratching like razorblades at my ears, and the panic’s taking total hold of me. Pounding through my whole body and into the back of my throat, beating at my temples and threatening to overwhelm me.

Just as I’m sure I can’t struggle any longer—that I’m experiencing my own death—the whole scene dissolves. I’m sitting upright in my bed in the Lucases’ home. The lights are out, but moonlight is filling the room. There’s no one there but me.


Previous: Chapter 16

Next: Chapter 18


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LESSER DEMONS: CHAPTER 12

Posting for feedback. (Frame of reference for people who read the previous draft: this used to be Chapter 7.) Thanks for reading!


CHAPTER 12

There’s this awful sort of anticipation all heavy in my gut as I turn around, moving real slow as if whoever’s there can’t really exist until I’m actually seeing them. No one is there, though. It’s just the empty hallway and the soft swishing sound of Eilian’s departing footsteps.

It makes it worse that I can still feel the energy of a person there, even though I can’t see anyone. And the fact that the sensation is so strong, as though if I reached my hand out in front of me, there’s no doubt I’d make contact with some physical being. It’s sending prickles up and down my spine like a dozen creepy crawlers.

Just a few seconds ago, all the spookiness was kind of fun. The harmless thrill of scary stories at a slumber party. It’s become something totally different now, though. Now, I’m thinking about the fact that there are real people in this world who want to harm me. People who’s powers I know very little about and who, for all I know, really could be standing there right in front of me, invisible to my eye, trying to decide how best to make me hurt.

The unseen person—or thing, or whatever—isn’t moving, and I can’t make myself move either. Part of me wants to reach out and try and touch it, to make sure that there really is something in that pocket of energy hanging in the air. The rest of me just wants to run away like a scared little kid toward the fading sound of Eilian’s footsteps.

Then her footsteps stop, and for a heavy three seconds I hear nothing from her at all. There’s just this terrible quiet that makes me suddenly sure this ominous, invisible force has gotten hold of her too somehow. Then her voice sounds out, traveling loud and clear down the hallway.

“Are you coming already?” she calls, and the fake impatience in her voice just totally breaks the spell.

Of course no one else is there with me. It’s so suddenly obvious that no one ever was. If they had been, I’d have sensed their essence. I just let the setting get to me—let my imagination run a little too wild—and now, standing here in a glaringly empty hallway, I’m feeling pretty foolish about it all. Swearing kind of sheepish to myself that this is a story no one else will ever hear, I hurry off after Eilian, shooting just one quick glance back behind me as I go. You know, just in case.

On the sixth floor there’s this little nursery that’s full of toys that Eilian swears date back even further than the 1700s. This is the only room where she apparently doesn’t mind lingering for a while. She rummages around through all of the toys and pulls out the ones she thinks might be most interesting, telling me more about their histories than she bothered doing with anything else in the house.

There are a bunch of little wooden ships and animals and things, a nearly full-sized rocking pony, some pretty intense model castles and houses. An ant farm made of hundreds of little robotic ants. Elian’s favorite toys are the real weird ones. Like these rabbit dolls that you can open up, and inside there are some way too real little rabbit organs.

The thing she gets the most excited about, though, are these dead-eyed porcelain dolls with weird little speakers set into their backs.

When she notices them on a shelf in one of the far corners, she says, “Oh, these are terrible,” as if by terrible she means amazing.

She grabs a couple of them and shoves one into my hands, bringing the other doll up to her mouth and speaking into the speaker in this real high-pitched voice.

“I’m Sophie,” she mocks me, and her voice comes out all hollow and eerie from the doll’s staring face. “And when I see steel faces I just go ‘Aaaaaaaaa!’”

Rolling my eyes, I bring my own doll up to my mouth. “I’m Eilian,” I copy her tone. “And I take pleasure in other people’s pain.”

I draw the words out real long, trying to turn it into a sort of ghosty sound, and that’s when Dylan walks into the room. Of course. Right when I’m acting like a total weirdo. He stops on the threshold and eyes the two of us for a second, the smallest hint of a smile playing at the edges of his lips.

“Lunch is ready. Time to put your dollies away.”

***********************************************************************

After lunch, Dylan takes over the house tour, saying that there’s really only one place left that I need to see. We use the main elevator, which runs through the center of the tree and opens up on the first floor, in the wall underneath the marble staircase. The inside of the elevator is covered in golden gilding and hundreds of little odd-shaped mirrors, so that no matter where you look in the thing your own reflection’s staring back at you many times over.

The controls are on a panel that appears over a mirror by the door when Dylan waves his hand in front of it. They’re made of that light matter stuff, all blue and holographic with these elaborate, glowing designs wrapping around the numbers and coming together in a Celtic knot at the top.

I think the knot is just for decoration, but when Dylan taps it, the elevator starts into motion.

“This takes us to the aerie,” he says. “It was my parents’ pet project until—” He pauses just long enough for me to notice it. “Until they had to stop working on it. The thing about the aerie that I like most, though, has been there most of my life.”

We ride the elevator up for what must be at least a dozen stories, and when the doors open finally I’m not real sure what I should expect. There’s a hallway, a bit narrower than on the other floors. It’s still made of that golden-colored wood that’s all over the house, but up here there aren’t any of the bird designs in it. The hall leads to a little reading room that’s lined in cushioned benches, with a few other loungey chairs and strategically placed side tables scattered around.

The far wall is made entirely of windows, and Dylan walks straight over to them, opening a couple french doors and waiting for me to step through. It’s a balcony out there, so high up on the tree it feels like we’re practically flying. The house’s huge green willow branches drape down in front of us, framing the Daxan cityscape in a way that makes me stop dead in my tracks.

All those jumbo tree houses and craggy hill mansions rising up next to monumental desert buttes—that was all pretty amazing to see from the ground, but from up here it’s like some sort of dream world. Off to the left, crystalline downtown Daxa flickers in the sun as if everything there is made of quivering candles, and as a backdrop to all of this, the towering, snow-covered mountains sit there like kings against the dusk-tinged slate blue of the afternoon sky.

I can’t come up with a single word to say. I’m just standing there, staring at it all and thinking that this must be what it’s like to stare into the divine or something. I mean, I couldn’t imagine up a better version of heaven.

Dylan steps over to the balcony’s edge, leans against the carved wooden railing and looks back at me with a gratified smile, as if my appreciation for all of this is somehow a sort of compliment to him.

“Daxa shows its best from up here, doesn’t it?”

As an answer I just walk over to the railing next to him to stare over the side for a better view. It’s like some chess game set up by the gods down there or something, and we’re so high up right now that I can actually smell the cold. As if, with so little else to distract my senses, the scent of it just sings out loud in the air.

Dylan takes a little step closer to me, places his hand on the railing next to mine, and I can sense him heating the air around us. It’s cozy and kind of intimate, standing alone with him up here. After a second he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a small gray envelope.

“Here’s your Wyoming drivers license,” he says. “And a Sophie Warren passport, to add further credence to your identity.”

It’s weird to look at those ID cards and see my own face, all framed with my shining blue super-hero hair. Dylan took the pictures this morning before he left for work, but he’s altered them a little. Made my hair a bit shorter all around, my face a little younger. To give the impression that time’s passed since the IDs were issued, he tells me.

Looking down at those things, holding them in my hands—for the first time in days the idea of living this secret identity actually feels kind of cool. I smile up at Dylan.

“This makes me an official spy now, right?” I ask, and he lets out this soft little laugh.

“You still need more training. Which,” he glances around the balcony, “we might as well do now.”

He pulls a couple of the smallest chairs out of the reading room inside and sets them up so they’re facing over the balcony railing.

Looking at me over the top of the chairs he says, “I can’t teach you much about how to be a reader, but I can teach you how to control your sightings so they don’t keep sending you stumbling to the ground. Won’t take long for people to suss you out if they realize you’re already getting sightings at this point in your Painter development.”

He has me sit down while he sets up another bubble of heat around us so that it’s almost as warm as if we were inside the house. For some reason I’m suddenly feeling kind of nervous as he sits in the chair next to me, like maybe I’m not going to be able to do all this painting and reading stuff after all. Like, maybe I’m actually just some sort of a dud.

“Today’s focus will be meditations,” he says. “They’ll help you learn how to channel your essentual energy and receive sightings without giving away any visible signs.”

Digging into his pocket he pulls out a little book and hands it to me. It’s about the size of a notecard and not even a quarter-inch thick. The pages are curled at the edges and most of the cover’s torn off as if this book’s been carried around in his pocket and opened and read every single day.   

“It details a variety of effective meditations,” Dylan explains. “I’ll teach you a few today and you can look over the rest later, but before you can understand what’s in the book you’ll need to know some of the basic principles behind particle painting.”

Propping his feet up against the wooden rungs of the balcony railing in front of us, he slumps back in his chair all casual and unconcerned in a way that reminds me a whole lot of Eilian.

“You’re pretty well used to seeing the particle world now, it seems. Tomorrow, we’ll teach you how to interact with it, but for now, all you really need to know is that intent equals force. You simply will your mind to reach out and make matter do as you wish it.”

He expands his phone and pulls a set of notes up on his screen. As he scrolls through with one hand he taps sort of absent at his temple with the other, running his fingers up through his hair every once in a while in a way that I find just a little distracting. He looks anything but official right now. It’s like he’s younger, more accessible.

“So, for instance,” he looks up from his notes, “the easiest interaction is to make something hotter or colder, which is why one of the most common Painter weapons is the fireball. It takes little of your own energy. Just a bit of heat and some molecular kindling.”

He pauses to reference something else in his notes and then continues.

“You’ve likely noticed that particles are usually in motion. If they’re moving slowly that typically translates to a lower overall temperature for the material they compose. More movement means more heat.”

I turn my attention to the little book in my hand, look down into the particles there to see what Dylan’s describing. Most of the book’s particles are moving pretty slow except around where I’m holding it with my fingers, where my body heat must be speeding the particles up.

“So the idea is that if you wanted to make fire and you had something flammable available to you, you’d simply will the particles to move faster and—”

Before he can get any further, this burst of flame ignites in my hand, shooting skyward and pretty nearly singeing my eyebrows off. I drop the burning book on the balcony floor and kind of jump backwards in my chair, at the same time that Dylan’s springing to his feet, his phone clenched tight in his fist and his eyes fixed on me.

He’s positioned as if ready for an attack, but his mouth is gaping open in so much comical surprise that I can’t help it if I start kind of giggling. It takes him a few seconds to recover, but then he nearly smiles too and drops down to the ground where the book is still burning. With a quick movement of his hand the flames are gone, and he’s looking up at me with this sort of bewildered expression on his face.

“Was that you?” he asks, like he almost can’t believe it.

“I think so.” I nod, still kind of doubtful myself. I glance at the book on the ground in front of him. It’s barely more than a burnt binding now. “Me and your beloved book of meditations, I guess. Sorry about that.”

“I can always get another,” Dylan says, sitting back on his haunches and studying me for a minute, this strange little smile growing across his face. “Well, that was unexpected. Looks like I’ll have to reevaluate the pace I’d planned for your trainings.”

I’ve never had anyone look at me that way before—like I’m a surprise to them and like that’s a good thing—and I really don’t know what to do with it. Dylan gets up and sits back down in his chair, leaning forward with his forearms on his knees and his eyes still turned toward me, considering.

“I wasn’t planning on doing this today, but why not keep working on painting, then?” he says. “We can do the meditations after.”

He paints out this little lump of something that feels kind of like clay. He calls it a practice ball, and he shows me how to influence the speed of the particles there in a more controlled way, trying to get the temperature of the thing just about exactly where I want it.

Every once in a while he reaches over and wraps his fingers around my wrist, to get a better sense of what it is I’m doing on the particle level, he says. And every time he does it I can feel my essensus start to light up at the back of my neck and my pulse beat just a little quicker.

He keeps commenting on how fast I’m picking up painting, but I’d probably pick it up a whole lot faster if he’d keep his pretty hands to himself.

When he thinks I’ve got the hang of heating and cooling, he has me practice a few meditations that he says should help me the most with channelling my sightings, and with Painting in general. Then he takes my phone and downloads an electronic copy of the little meditation book, telling me that before I go to bed tonight I should try the other methods it describes.

The sun’s hanging low in the sky when Dylan finally says we’d better head back downstairs for dinner. I feel like we’ve been training for days, and I’m starving, but as we’re stepping off the elevator onto the first floor the doorbell rings. This chiming arpeggio that sounds out all loud and cheerful from somewhere up near the great hall ceiling.

Dylan turns on his heel and heads to the front door, across from the foot of the stone staircase. Without really thinking about it I just sort of trail after him, lingering by the nearest marble pillar. So, with the way the room is situated, when he opens the door I’ve got a pretty clear view of the person waiting on the other side.

She’s tall and slender and exotic-looking. All thick, dark hair and thick, dark eyelashes outlining eyes as green as a cat’s. Dylan’s stunned to see her there. He’s standing at an angle to me, but I can still see it in the slackness of his jaw, in the sudden stillness of his arms as they hang at his sides.

The girl hesitates on the doorstep for just a second, and then she steps into the house, smiling at Dylan like he’s a bright light after a long, dark night. Each move she makes is like a little piece of poetry. Like she’s in precise control of every muscle in her body.

She reaches up toward him and slips her hand around the back of his neck for ramu. When she kisses him on the mouth like she’s done it a hundred times before, his whole body pulls in to meet hers, and my heart just sort of sinks.


Previous: Chapter 11

Next: Chapter 13


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LESSER DEMONS: CHAPTER 10

Posting for feedback. (Frame of reference for returning readers: this used to be Chapter 6.) Thanks for reading!


CHAPTER 10

After a night full of dreams of my own room and my own house with my own mom in it, waking up in that strange bed covered in its billowing golden canopy feels a little like stepping into another dream rather than out of one.

Dylan’s gone when I wake up, but I’ve barely had a chance to bathe and clothe myself before he’s knocking at the door again. He comes in all brisk and purposeful and just a little bit apologetic. He says it’s time to get rid of all the stuff I brought with me from Flemingsburg, but he hands me some clothes to put on first. Clothes that I am not at all sure I’m ready to go around wearing in public.

There’s a leathery black bodysuit that fits as comfortable as my own skin and this real thin, asymmetrically-hemmed T-shirt to go over the top of it, with dark red combat boots that look a lot heavier than they actually are. The outfit’s accented with a little black lacey jacket, and it all looks much more effortless and cool than I’ll probably ever feel.

When I come out of the bathroom in the thing it must be real obvious that I’m kind of skeptical about it because Dylan gets this amused little look on his face and says, “Don’t worry, it suits you. And we’ll take you to get some more clothes after breakfast.”

He grabs my backpack off the floor by the bed and carries it past me and into the bathroom. I watch from the doorway as he sets it in the tub and crouches down to rest his hands on top of it. He glances up at me for a second like maybe he’s checking to make sure I’m okay with whatever he’s about to do, but then before I can say anything he just starts liquifying my bag to smithereens. Diffusing it and all of its contents down into this rainbow-colored sludge that goes oozing like melted crayons along the bottom of the tub.

It’s kind of a shock to see almost everything that ties me back to my old life just disappear down the drain like that, a visible reminder that I’m probably never going back to Flemingsburg again. Never going back to that world I’m already learning to call “Particle-Blind,” as if it’s something foreign.

I kind of can’t handle it, and I’ve got to turn away before Dylan’s even halfway done. I slip back into my bedroom and wait all quiet for him by the outer door, trying to pretend like I don’t feel suddenly and overwhelmingly lonely.

When Dylan comes out of the bathroom he doesn’t say anything. Just gives me a sympathetic almost-smile and steps out into the hallway, pausing there until he’s sure I’m going to follow.

The house seems brighter today, even though there aren’t any windows in the hall. There’s a fresh, alive sort of smell to the air too, as if it’s been pumped in straight from the garden outside or something.

Dylan leads me down the corridor to a wide set of marble stairs, all bright white and curving slowly downward. It’s not exactly the sort of thing I’d expect to see inside someone’s home, even a house like this one. It’s more like what a king would use, with whole throngs of servants straggling behind him and trumpeters at the bottom announcing his descent. All we’ve got to accompany us is the heavy echoes of our shoes against the stone.

At the bottom, the staircase opens up onto a room that is literally the size of a small amphitheater. The blue stone floor is marbled with veins that look like enormous waves spreading out from our feet. All over the place massive pillars the same white stone as the stairs rise up and up to the ceiling, which has got to be at least three stories high. It’s made of white marble too, with these big, oddly-shaped sheets of stain glass all over it, showing unfamiliar scenes made of eye-popping colors and filtering light through in these little shafts of softly diffused rainbow.

At this point I’ve just got to stop and stare because, I mean, this is just a little too much.

Dylan’s several strides into the room before he notices I’m not following. Turning to see what’s wrong, he takes in the stunned look on my face and is immediately and kind of annoyingly entertained by it.

“This is the great hall,” he says, as if that explains everything.

“Who lives in a house like this?”

“As of last night, you do. Come on. Breakfast has probably already been served.”

The dining room, which Dylan calls the family dining room as if there’s maybe another, is in the furthest corner from the stairway. It’s lined with huge, arching windows and so many hanging potted plants you’d almost forget you were indoors. Most of the room’s taken up by a dining table that could fit probably upwards of twenty people, but in a far corner there’s a smaller, round table set up with just five plates and a spread of food that’d give most of mine and Mom’s Thanksgiving dinners a run for their money. The smell of it—all savory and sweet and inviting—seems to fill the entire room.

There are three people sitting there—a man and a woman and a girl a couple years younger than me—and when Dylan and I step through the door, the three of them look around toward us all wide-eyed and curious like they’re expecting to see a five-armed monkey or something.

The woman, who I’m guessing is Dylan’s aunt Mrs. Jacoby, makes this excited little noise and pops up out of her seat to scurry over to us in a way that could only be described as dainty.

“Oh, it’s so good to have you here,” she says, wrapping me up in her arms as tight as if she actually knows me. Her hair is all in my face and she smells like flowers, and her hug is so full of exactly the kind of warmth and welcome I need this morning that for a second I’m afraid I’m going to cry.

Then she’s pulling away and smiling at me like I’m just the sort of person she likes the most, and she grips my shoulders and says, “Dylan’s mum’s told me all about you. Well, I suppose, about your mother, but I’m sure the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Do come and eat, my dear.”

She takes one of my hands and starts pulling me toward the table.

“I’m sure you haven’t had a proper meal for days. No slight meant to our Dylan, of course, but he’s not known for his culinary skills.”

She’s a short woman, and sinewy and as sun-wrinkled as if she’d never spent a whole day indoors in her life. She smiles easy and almost constantly, but somehow it still feels like something real special every time she flashes that smile at me. She tells me to call her Aunt Nia just like Dylan and Eilian do because, according to her, I’m officially part of the family now.

Her husband—who she introduces as Uncle Wyn—is a stocky man with a bald head and a long face and a little bit of a pooch to his belly. He’s gotten out of his seat to greet me, standing there and waiting with his hands behind his back and his feet slightly apart, looking somehow real solid and a little imposing.

I feel pretty out of my element about now, but I hold my palm out kind of tentative for pono, like Agni taught me. The man’s lips just sort of twitch at that, though. Then he takes a quick step forward and pulls me into a hug. His arms are real substantial and strong, in the way you’d expect from someone who works with his hands on a regular basis. He and Aunt Nia, with their weathered skin and that air of hard work about them, seem like they shouldn’t belong in this grand, opulent old house, but somehow they just really do.

The girl—the one I’m thinking must be Dylan’s sister Eilian—stays in her seat through all of this. Lounging there like she just can’t be bothered, eyeing me real critical with her head cocked to one side and her arms draped across her chair, all casual and kind of dignified.

She’s dressed in orange harem pants with a green silky tank top and a fedora, her mess of gold curls tumbling out around the bottom of the hat and framing her face like a halo. She’s pretty and petite like a pixie, but there’s something kind of intimidating about her too, and the way she’s staring me down right now is more than just a little bit disconcerting.

When she’s sure she’s got my attention she sort of leans toward me as if she’s trying to get a better look. Real blunt, she says, “You don’t look like a farmer,” and I’m pretty sure Dylan and Aunt Nia just about die.

“Eilian!” they both say as if scolding her is a pretty regular necessity, but I catch Uncle Wyn’s hint of a smile and I remember the way Dylan described Eilian last night.

So I get this real exaggerated sort of apology on my face and I say to her, “I left my overalls upstairs, and the straw hat blew off while we were traveling.”

She just looks at me for a few seconds, and then she says, “Well, that was pretty careless of you,” as if she’s real unimpressed, but there’s a smile peeping out at one corner of her mouth and, just like that, I know we’re going to be friends.

“Leave off, Eilian,” Dylan says, kind of affectionate, pulling out a chair for me next to her. “We’re starving.”

He takes the seat on my other side while Uncle Wyn dishes mounds of food onto our plates with a sort of pride that makes me think he’s probably the one who cooked it.

Aunt Nia asks about our journey, and I let Dylan tell her that it was fine, that we took it slow and leisurely and that the only difficult thing we encountered was a little too much snow. He’s a real good liar. It probably shouldn’t impress me, but turns out it does.

The food is delicious—like to the point of maybe actually blowing my mind—so I’m pretty content to sit there eating real slow, letting the flavors develop on my tongue in ways that I didn’t know food could do even, and I just listen to the others talk. The conversation’s mostly about their close friends and family—cousins living halfway around the world sort of thing—and it’s interesting to watch how they all interact with each other.

Uncle Wyn mostly just sits and listens as quiet as me, but Aunt Nia talks in a sort of stream of consciousness that’s accentuated by these exclamations of “Oh! Did you know that…?” and “Ah! Have I told you…?” in varying levels of excitement, all while Dylan grins at her and does his best to respond appropriately.

Every few minutes Eilian leans forward to deliver some imperious commentary on whatever Aunt Nia or Dylan’s just said. Then she punctuates her statements by thrusting herself back into her chair again, her arms folded all smug against her chest and her whole demeanor radiating this sort of playful self-satisfaction.

They’re all energized by each other, having fun. It’s the most noise I’ve heard in days and I’m loving it, but then the conversation lulls for a second and Dylan just totally ruins the mood.

“Where’s Gwilim?” he asks, real soft and unexpected, and you can tell his question makes everyone pause.

At least, everyone except maybe Eilian. She gives the nearest table leg a good, sharp little kick.

“Who knows? He’s been gone since before you left and he’s not been home once. At least not that I’ve noticed.”

“No. Nor have we seen him,” Aunt Nia agrees, kind of subdued.

“Franny Demirci said she heard he’s been staying at young Tom Cloutier’s,” Uncle Wyn speaks up, his eyes on Dylan’s face and his voice sounding like he knows this is definitely not good news.

Dylan stares back at him for a second, all stony-faced and stoic. Then he looks down at his plate again and starts picking at his food with his fork, suddenly real done with a topic that he brought up himself.

Aunt Nia kindly changes the subject, asking Eilian if she was aware that her friend Tua Moeaki would be starting at Mawihl Academy with the two of us on Monday, which just makes Eilian roll her eyes and let out this real exaggerated groan.

“Yes. Ever since he learned he got in, he talks of nothing else. Nefsakes, I wish he’d just gone to Central.”

***********************************************************************

After breakfast Dylan says he’s going to take me downtown to do some shopping and Eilian insists on coming along. I follow her and Dylan out to this huge garage that they call “the hangar,” where there are three car-sized vehicles that are just hovering there a foot or so off the ground, as if they were little mini spaceships or something. They’re shaped like raindrops that’ve been caught in a heavy wind and Dylan tells me they don’t run off of actual fuel.

“They’re called ‘emvees,’ or electomagnetic vehicles,” he says with a smile in his voice as he watches me crouch down and look under one of them to make sure the thing really is floating in mid-air. “They’re powered by the push and pull of electromagnetic forces. Not, like it appears you’re thinking, by magic.”

His emvee is a soft, silvery seafoam color and it’s a whole lot roomier than you’d expect from it’s flat-ish outer profile. Inside, the thing is all sleek and comfortable, with two captain’s chairs in the front and a bunch of holographic screens and buttons spread across the dashboard like some alien control panel.

Eilian climbs into the back so I can take the passenger seat next to Dylan. When I sit down, the cushioning of the chair actually sucks in to conform to the back of my body, and it’s such a shock to me that I let out this squawk of surprise that makes Eilian burst out laughing.

In fact, she seems real tickled with the way I’m responding to just about everything right now, and as the emvee skims all silent and gently swaying out onto their long driveway, I notice that she’s leaning real far forward in her seat, trying to get a look at my face. Which I know means something’s up.

There are loads of tall, dense evergreen trees lining the drive so I can’t see much of the garden beyond them, but I start scanning what I can see, trying to figure out whatever it might be that she’s so sure is going to get a reaction out of me. Other than the sheer size of their yard, though, I don’t notice anything too out of the ordinary.

Then, as the line of trees drops away, I get a clear view of the outside of their house for the first time, and at this point, I’m pretty sure my jaw drops.

“You live in a tree.”

It comes out all monotone and disbelieving, and Eilian pretty much loses it.

“It’s a great big, hulking tree,” I say again and look around at them as if maybe this time they’ll appreciate how weird that is, but Dylan just sort of smiles and Eilian laughs even harder.

I crane my neck around to try and get a better angle. Most of the side and top of the emvee is really just a huge window so even though their house—some sort of a willow, from the looks of it—is as tall as a large office building and probably as wide, I can still see most of it. It’s dotted by all these arched, paned windows with little balconies here and there and flowering vines growing all over the trunk of it. It should look like something straight out of a Keebler Elves commercial, but it doesn’t. It’s charming and pretty and even kind of dignified.

“Back in the early days of the Republic people took a lot of pride in shaping houses of out of living things,” Dylan says. “Or at least, out of things that already existed in nature. This house has been in our family for generations.”

I stare at him for a second and then jab my thumb back toward the tree. “Did you just say that thing is still alive?”

Eilian goes off in another peal of laughter like she just cannot get enough of this, but even though Dylan grins, he answers me without any hint of teasing.

“Aunt Nia mostly cares for it. We call her the plant whisperer.”

We’ve pulled out onto the street now, and as we drive down the road I see a lot of these kinds of strange houses. Huge trees of all varieties, towers made out of what looks like stacks of giant stones, hill houses like humongous hobbit mansions.

They’re interspersed with buildings that are more recognizably man-made, built out of bricks and stone and cement and wood, though there’s always something that’s a little strange about them. Turrets jutting out at unexpected angles, walls bulging into the air where you’d never think a building should bulge. As if, even though they are manmade, these houses were still built to look like the things you’d find in nature, made to loosely resemble mountains and plants and animals and things.

There are a lot more people out on the streets than I’d expect to see in an area that seems so residential. They’re dressed in all colors and all fashions as if they’ve just stepped off a runway show where the theme was everything, everywhere or something. Their clothes throw together styles from all over the world—from probably every time period since humans started dressing themselves—and it’s hard not to stare at them as we pass by.

Downtown Daxa is even more eye-boggling. I mean, I’ve seen some pretty amazing skyscrapers in movies and things, but these buildings are out of this world. There’s a fifty-story, shimmering orca rising out of the ground as if out of water, a jumbo-sized water bird poised as if it’s just landed gracefully on feet that seem way too delicate to support an entire building.

Most the other structures aren’t inspired so directly by real-life things, but they’re still much less buildings than they are works of art. As if they were sculpted on the spot by some giant, loving hand. Every surface is smooth as still water and wears the light of the sun like a cloak, shimmering all soft as if the city itself is glowing, and I understand now what Dylan meant when he called Daxa a light in the mountains.

I just stare out the windows at it all for a little while, stunned that a place like this can even exist. When I glance kind of wide-eyed around at Eilian she gives me a big, appreciative smile but she doesn’t laugh. Probably she thinks it’s pretty amazing too. Probably no matter how long you live here you never stop thinking that.

As we hit the streets between the skyscrapers, the crowds outside triple in size. People are bustling along the sidewalks that line the road, spilling into the intersections every time the lights change. The traffic lights themselves are the usual red, yellow and green, but they’re cased in decorative copper and they hang without support above each intersection, apparently just floating in the air. There are huge wooden totems at the corners of every intersection too. A reminder, Dylan says, that even though this is the capital of the Painter Republic, it’s really the home of the Kwakwaka’wakw people.

“We are their guests here,” he says. “This city only exists because they allowed it.”

Winding around the buildings a few stories above us, I notice huge transparent tubes with these blurring colors inside as if something’s moving through them at impossible speeds, going too fast for the naked eye to see.

“Those are for particle sailing,” Dylan says, noticing where I’m looking. “The only place, other than private residences, where it’s legal to do it in city limits. Allows you to get around town quickly if you want a good sail.”

He’s about to say something else, but he never gets the words out because, just then, this huge figure looms up right beside us, and after one glance at it I start to scream. The thing is like something straight out of a nightmare, all long and lanky, with half a dozen tentacle-like arms and a face of shining metal. It’s bent down toward my window, and it’s staring at me with these stone cold, pupil-less eyes.


Previous: Chapter 9

Next: Chapter 11


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